Interior Design for Today’s Demanding Hot Rodders

Sachse Rod Shop did the interior design of this 1933 Ford. The goal was to keep the interior clean and simple.

Pearlescent paint work and 20-inch chrome wheels may wow the crowd on cruise night, but the inside of a car is where a car’s owner spends most of their time, and most customers expect the same kind of cool design there to complement that high-revving Hemi and bold exterior strut. But defining “cool design” is the tricky part, as it’s as subject to individual taste as any other aspect of this highly individual hobby.

One common trend, particularly with 1960s muscle cars, is to return to the factory appearance, but using modern materials of a higher quality than was even dreamt of in those halcyon days of big displacement power.

“There is absolutely no comparison,” said Rob Kahn of Futura Textiles in Walnut, California. “The quality of vinyl today is light-years ahead of what it was just 10 years ago. There have been constant innovations and, as a matter of fact, next year we are going to introduce a completely new technology [for vinyl].”

While improving durability, vinyl manufacturers have come closer to producing vinyl with the look and feel of leather.

“It used to be very rare that you could put a piece of vinyl in front of me and [convince] me [that] it was leather,” Kahn said. “Now it’s gotten to where, on occasion, I’ve been fooled.”

Some customers are looking for a one-of-a-kind stand-out interior.

“It’s kind of crazy out there,” said Larry Dennis of the Larry Dennis Co. in Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s anything and everything. Suede has been an item. There’s glitzy-looking velvet and old-style hound’s tooth and animal prints. We have exotic panels in ostrich and gator. It’s all about looking different.”

A fabricator at Jay's Upholstery works on a project truck.

“Most people get custom upholstery because the original fabrics for older cars are so expensive,” noted Audie Parsons, owner of Jay’s Upholstery Inc., an upholstery shop in Denton, Texas. “They are buying tweeds, suedes, leathers—they are going crazy. But you have to show them that you can actually do it and make it look right.”

“Custom interiors are still strong and growing,” agreed Jeff Post, vice president and general manager of Enduratex in Mira Loma, California. “Individualizing a vehicle has become all-important to the consumer.”

Other customers have different preferences when it comes to their interior.

“We work hard to make our styles timeless,” added Tom Ashton, owner of TEA’s Design in Rochester, Minnesota. “Nothing [is] too high-tech [because] those designs aren’t big sellers anymore. Now it’s a blend of everything. Everybody wants to do their own thing.”

“People are going for comfort over originality with heated seats, even racing-style seats,” said Roger C. Niehaus, vice president of sales for Auto Custom Carpets Inc. in Anniston, Alabama.

And while customers crave variety, feel and durability, Kahn added that car builders and upholsterers look for “materials that are easy to work with—cutting, stretching, all of that.”

Flat Finish

"Custom interiors are still strong and growing," said Jeff Post of Enduratex. "Individualizing a vehicle has become all-important to the consumer."

“The hot trend we’ve seen is the dulling down of finishes,” Kahn said. “In the past, restorations would match the sheen of the OEM material. Today the trend is to match the original colors, but with a dull finish more in line with what the OEMs offer today. Vinyl is still used quite a bit, but they are using vinyl that appears more like leather. This began several years ago when the suppliers began to make the grain in vinyl look more like leather, then it progressed to a more leather-like feel, and from there to the dull-finish look of leather that we’re seeing today.”

Shawn Cook said his customers at Cook’s Auto Trimin Murphy, Texas, frequently want an original-looking interior made from today’s higher-quality materials. He and several other builders cited the particular popularity of Ultraleather, a polyurethane textile manufactured by Gulf Fabrics of Tampa, Florida.

“It comes in 75 colors and it’s a 100-percent match all the time,” said Cook. “[If] I do an interior today and two years down the road the customer rips a door panel, I can match it perfectly, whereas if you order exotic leather in special colors, you have to make sure you order enough for repairs and replacements, because it’s an individual dye lot, and it’s hard to match.”

Ultraleather is also “more durable and it has a memory,” added Cook. “You sit on it and it bends or whatever, but then it comes back to its original shape.”

Kahn confirmed that Ultraleather is very popular, but in the end it’s the look of leather rather than the brand name of the material that’s important to the customer.

Enduratex recently released a new material called Gran Reserva, “a very unique synthetic leather available in 12 of the most-popular leather colors today,” said Post. “It’s very different from other faux leathers as it truly emulates the look and feel of leather upholstery. It is a soft-hand product but has the bulkiness and weight you would associate with leather. The microfiber backing, while playing a functional role in the hand and stability of the product, also produces a look of the bank of an aniline-dyed leather.”

“The trick is knowing what’s going to work for the application,” Ashton of TEA’s Design said. “The hardest part is choosing a material for the seats versus the rest of the interior. Some materials have a one-way stretch, some have a two-way stretch. A door panel is rigid, so you can be more aggressive with the material to keep the wrinkles out. But seats are soft, and you are relying on that soft seat to have enough push to remove the wrinkles. We just found a material that has a uniform stretch all around. It’s the new polys that [are] making this work a lot more friendly.” A material can be too soft, “so when people slide in and out of the seats, it won’t pull the wrinkles back out of the seat cover,” Ashton added.

Original versus Custom

“In the past five to 10 years there has been a substantial gravitation toward [that] vinyl and leather type of look, versus cloth,” said Ashton.

And vinyl, of course, is what came from the factory in most classic muscle cars.

In the truck market, "we're seeing more of a custom look, rather than trying to reinvent what came in the truck originally," said Rob Kahn of Futura.

“While there is still a trend toward custom builds, the baby boomers are reliving their youth and seeking that original Mustang or Camaro look,” said Post. “Our sales of materials with grains such as Sierra or Madrid, which were big in that era, remain strong. Even rod builders have been subduing their exotic tastes, moving away from looks like alligator or snakeskin and moving toward higher-end materials in solid colors and soft grains.”

Kahn of Futura finds that people building 1960s muscle cars are the most likely to want original colors. Customers building 1950s cars—which often came with brightly colored interiors—still want bright colors and patterns, but not necessarily the original look.

Cook has seen a trend of using stainless mesh trim in these cars.

“They want to add something the car would have if it was being built today,” he said. “But [as for] 1969 Chevelles and Camaros, they’re keeping them original. Some people are converting to leather, but most of them want Naugahyde vinyl—unless they are building a Pro-Touring car, then they are updating the interior to more modern technology. Then they go for a more-modern look, with wilder designs: free-flowing consoles front to rear, molded-in rear seats, and Ultraleather or real leather.”

Owners of older street rod-style cars are “more into the nostalgia look, [although] customers are replacing original leather interiors with Ultraleather,” Cook said.

We asked about cars that came original with fabric interiors.

“We haven’t done a cloth interior for years,” Cook answered. “Tweeds were big, but then they faded out. Then came exotic leather inserts, but that faded out, too. Now they’re back to genuine leather or Ultraleather. It’s a nostalgic look, but it doesn’t date a car like cloth does.”

But Simon Kamali, of Kamali Leatherin Manhasset, New York, still sees strong demand for exotic leathers—“reptiles, like crocodile and alligator, and ostrich, too,” he said. “[If] we get 10 calls a week, seven of them are for exotics. In reality it’s all embossed cowhide, but the look can be quite convincing. Perforations and weaves are popular, too,” he said.

On the other hand, “The classics never die—the classic smooth leather that used to be in cars,” Kamali added. As for color, “People enjoy a contrast of the interior against the exterior,” he said. “We offer about 35 colors, but the ones that sell most are black and colors in the tan family like cognac and tobacco. It ranges from conservative to crazy.”

Ashton said he tries to steer his customers toward lighter shades like cream and vanilla.

“I try to help them understand that if they want people to see their interior when they open the doors, they want a light color,” he said. “Artistically, what the eye sees is the shadows in the pleats—and if the whole interior is dark, you can’t see the shadows. A light color makes the interior stand out more.

“A lot of people find that helpful—although we do sell a lot of black,” Ashton continued. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s I bet three-quarters of the pony cars came out of the factory with black interiors. It was just the color that was popular then and it’s still a good color today.”

Parsons of Jay’s Upholstery finds himself talking customers out of attractive, but not necessarily durable, materials.

“They see a fabric that’s not going to wear worth a darn in a car, and you have to convince them that it’s not a good idea,” he said. “It’s not that you can’t do it, but it’s better not to because if you do an interior in a material that only lasts a year, then you have an angry customer, and that blows the name of your business.”

“The builder wants to be sure the material meets the stringent wear requirements of an automobile,” Post agreed. “How well does the product stitch and hold seams? Does the face of the material wear well?”

Aged to Perfection

According to Mike Millsap, general manager of Sachse Rod Shopin Sachse, Texas, the choice of color and material has a lot to do with the age of the car owner.

“It’s the people in their late 30s and early 40s who are doing 1970s muscle cars with high-tech, one-off custom interiors,” he said. “We did one very high-end Pro Street-style 1955 Chevy and the whole interior was hand-fabricated with a molded fiberglass headliner and molded fiberglass console over the transmission tunnel.”

Millsap generally prefers using .040 aluminum sheet for custom fabrication.

“It gives me more versatility—I can make any kind of shape—and serviceability,” he said. “You can re-cover an aluminum door panel a hundred times and not hurt the structure. We’ve even done some hammer-forming and English-wheeling on headliners.”

In addition to Ultraleather, a material called Ultrasuede from Toray International in New York City is also becoming popular to use in muscle cars, Millsap said.

He sees more variety in older cars—although, again, the age of the customer can be a factor.

“Here in the shop we have a 1935 Chevy four-door sedan; the customer is about 70 years old and wants the interior back to original, with mohair upholstery and a wool headliner,” Millsap said. “It’s a resto-rod, but he’s of that generation. But the high-tech style is the majority right now. We even do real leather when the customer can afford it—although the prices have gotten pretty outrageous, depending on the quality of the leather you are buying.

“We just finished a 1941 Cadillac convertible for [actor-comedian] Steve Harvey [that’s done in] all real leather,” he continued. “We probably spent about $2,000 more on [that] material versus imitation leather because we bought all European leather, which is more flaw-free.

“Then we have a 1939 Pontiac coupe that we’re getting ready to do in Ultraleather and Ultrasuede,” Millsap added. “That customer is in his 60s, but it’s his first street rod and usually first-time street rodders want something a bit more high-tech looking.”

“We can almost tell the age of a customer by the material they are buying,” said Ashton. “Older people are springing for leather because maybe they didn’t have the money for leather when they were younger.”

“Younger people might want white vinyl with a contrasting color welt or cord and embroidery on the headrest,” said Parsons of Jay’s Upholstery. “An older person [often] wants more of a classic or nostalgic look [that’s] clean, with nothing fancy or bold that stands out.”

Tricked-Out Trucks

We found differing opinions regarding the dominant trend for classic trucks.

“Most of what we do are street-rod style trucks, and they get the same treatment that cars do,” said Cook.

Millsap basically agreed.

“We are building a 1953 Ford pickup for a young guy right now,” he said. “Exterior-wise and powertrain-wise it’s a resto-rod, it still has a Flathead in it, but interior-wise he wants Ultraleather and Ultrasuede.”

According to Kahn of Futura, however, the truck market is different.

“There we’re seeing more of a custom look, more individual choice, rather than trying to reinvent what came in the truck originally,” he said. “We see more leather and more leather-like materials in trucks than in the past, and in a lot of custom colors.” This may be because most classic trucks came from the factory with more restrained interior colors than the cars of the same era.

“You wouldn’t believe some of the things we’ve done,” said Ashton. “One guy wanted his pickup upholstered in yellow and red because those were his college colors.”

Topping It Off

In convertible tops, too, it’s the muscle car market that’s most interested in staying true to what came from the factory.

This 1965 Mustang features a convertible top from Kee Auto Top made of white pinpoint vinyl.

“People building muscle cars are sticking with the original materials with the original grains,” noted Karen Evans-St. John, president of Kee Auto Top in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We make them just like the original, with the reverse heat seal around the window and the warning tag. We offer most—we never say every—models from 1940 to the present.”

The company also offers decorative vinyl tops for closed cars, again in popular 1960s and 1970s grains such as Levant and Boar.

“The care of the top is the life of the top,” Evans-St. John said. Convertible tops, in particular, should always be stored in the closed position, she said.

“The worst thing you can do is stow it the entire winter, [which sets] in dirt and permanent creases,” in addition to inviting in mold and mildew, she said.

Underfoot, Auto Custom Carpets has released new firewall pads and new molded-carpet trunk kits for mid-1980s cars. “Also, we’ve developed a new floor mat backing that features our signature series logo,” said Niehaus. “It retails for 40-percent less than our original nibbed backing and has been a huge hit.”

Once more, it’s all about quality—not only selling upholstery that the customer will love when it’s new, but long-lasting materials and craftsmanship that will continue to delight the eye and touch for years to come.

To see a slideshow of custom interiors from the 2010 SEMA Show, click here.

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